Friday, January 11, 2019

... to the Tamil of today

The only problem that I have with David Shulman's biography of Tamil is that for a book authored by a person of his caliber, and for a book published by Harvard University Press, there are quite a few inconsistent spellings throughout.  Even Tenkasi is spelled as Tenkaci in one context.  In the opening pages, the pallavi of the Carnatic music is written as pallava.

But, otherwise, what an awesome learning experience it has been for me!

Shulman writes that the Tamil world had changed almost beyond recognition by the middle of the nineteenth century.  Manonmaniyam Sundaram Pillai played an integral role in the revival and revitalization of Tamil.  I recall his Tamil Thai Vazhthu from the school days.  Shulman lists many more who worked on recovering the old Sangam texts and providing commentaries about them.

In the early 20th century, the struggle to get rid of the bastard raj also became a struggle to re-establish Tamil.  Unfortunately, this became entangled with anti-Brahmin and anti-caste issues, which were also extremely important, and are important even today.  But, the co-mingling of these issues led to a political movement to also get rid of the Sanskrit--associated with Brahmins--words from the Tamil language.

Shulman writes that "the very intensity of anti-Sanskrit feeling that we see in the Pure Tamil fanatics is itself a sure sign of the deep interdependence of the two languages."  But, politics does not care for such nuances.  And despite the maniacal efforts of the fanatics, "Tamil today, like the Tamil of yesterday, indeed like nearly all major living languages, remains saturated with borrowed vocabulary."  The language lives on.

Shulman ends the book with a contemporary Tamil poem, by Manushya Puthiran.


Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Inspired writing and blogging! I have decided to read like you - making notes and keeping them for reference in a blog or a Word file - like signposts. I got my copy of the book and am waiting to read it.

Right through my childhood I was not aware of caste because I grew up in Delhi. But once I came to TN I realised how pervasive it was and the hostility I felt as a Tamil Brahmin was so scary I thought it had a historical basis. Of course I now know this is all cock. The net loser in all of this has been Tamil Nadu, as every year bright Brahmin boys and girls escape from TN to Mumbai or the US.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, I am delighted that you have purchased a copy and that you are also planning to do a serious read. Given your interests in Ramanujan's translations of the old Sangam poetry, and Kanchipuram/Pallavas,and history, you will certainly enjoy the book. What I didn't note in my posts was how Shulman drops some awesomely appropriate humorous lines every once in a while ;)

Usually I have nothing to disagree with your comments ... but, here, I want to make sure I present my views correctly, if my initial statements led you to comment "I now know this is all cock. The net loser in all of this has been Tamil Nadu"

It is not all cock by any means. Brahmins, while not always powerful or rich, certainly used their elevated status in the caste system to either directly work against the lower castes, or were complicit in the process. By doing so, and later by easily becoming servants to the bastard raj, Brahmins set themselves up well for the attacks that came their way in the 20th century.

Tamil Nadu is not by any means a net loser. The larger movement, within which the anti-Brahmin politics was situated, helped propel the lower castes, the "untouchables" of the past, and the indigenous folks too, into political power which then helped prioritize their social and economic development. Thanks to these, TN has one of the best Human Development Indicators in the country. The best, considering that the ones ranked higher have lower population #s.

BTW, born into a Brahmin family, I did not leave TN because of anti-Brahmin politics; I was merely following my intellectual and personal interests. I don't believe that I am outrageous exception to the rule either--one of the stories over the past four decades has been a fantastic worldwide movement of people,if countries allowed them.

What I meant, therefore, in the post was this: The recovery, revitalization, and re-establishment of Tamil has been unnecessarily tied together with the caste politics.